Smoking's Last Frontier

By Daniel Genis 09/16/14

Our author takes us on a personal tour of nicotine addiction: from prison-recipe smokes using patches, tea, and "blue thunder" to the latest tech innovation in e-cigarette smartphone apps.


Only 18% of Americans still smoke. And which person out of five is likely to be the smoker? Statistically, unfortunately, it is the least educated and poorest people who continue to support the big tobacco companies; the urban hipster puffing in front of an art gallery is the anomaly. However, there is one place in America where it’s still like the fifties, and not because of the racial segregation. In the incarcerated world, where I spent 10 years because of an addiction to heroin which led me from my desk in the publishing field to robbery in less than two years, smoking is considered quite normal and it is assumed that everyone smokes.

That assumption is almost correct: I managed to quit seven years into my sentence, only to resume recently. Having quit before, I know it is not impossible. And now there are tools of the most sophisticated nature to help.

The desperation of smokers is somewhat relieved when they reach upstate prisons, where smoking is permitted.

County jails, which is where one stays before serving a sentence after a conviction, have almost universally banned smoking throughout the country. On Rikers Island, one of the largest prisons in the world, smoking was banned in 2003. The prohibition does not indicate that there is no puffing on coffin nails, however. The guards bring in tobacco, which is a safer and more lucrative smuggle, and it is resold by inmates by the finger. That means that a finger of a plastic glove is filled with Top tobacco, the cheapest brand of loose roll-your-own, and in my time it cost ten dollars in commissary items. For paper, everyone uses toilet tissue wrapper, which is called ‘Blue Thunder.' Tastes terrible and leaves your lips blue.

The county jails have enough compassion to offer smoking patches. They are universally not used in the way intended. The method is difficult, but it works, and those without the funds to buy fingers of Top rely on it. Tea is brewed many times, until the leaves no longer even tint the water. Then the mush is put between two patches and baked on a hot water pipe. After a few hours, the tea is scraped off and dried out. Then it is rolled up and smoked in the Blue Thunder. The result is pretty much the most awful thing I have ever tasted, but it works when one’s ‘lungs are on the gate.' Back then my wife still smoked, so I sent her a rolled up nicotine patch/tea cigarette through the mail and listened to her cough on the phone.

The desperation of smokers is somewhat relieved when they reach upstate prisons, where smoking is permitted. Filtered cigarettes are way too expensive for almost all prisoners to smoke, so packs of Newports are simply used as money. If they are the ‘bills,' then postage stamps are the ‘change.' Capitalism flourishes everywhere, it seems.

Lately there have been efforts to provide prisoners with nicotine patches, although not nicotine gum because it is strictly forbidden. The authorities believe we make key impressions in it. However, there is no real push to help stop prisoners from smoking because the authorities don’t really care and often smoke or chew tobacco themselves. In maximum security joints like Attica, where prisoners serve lifetimes, the rules against smoking inside are relaxed for both the inmates and the guards. I myself have given countless smokes to cops who ran out. It’s the last frontier, because even in the tobacco fields of Virginia, the fact that smoking kills is well known. In the incarcerated world, where life has a lower price, that matters little and everyone puffs away.

I finally quit because I realized that years of unfiltered and cheap tobacco cannot possibly be good for me. Lasted for three years, came out, and when my life got hectic, picked up the habit again. But here in New York City, the 18 percent of American smokers have a slightly different profile. Most of the journalism and publishing professionals I know smoke, and they attribute the habit to their high stress jobs. Others are addicted to Nicorette; for example, the author David Sedaris has been chewing it for years, even though he first tried it to stop his nicotine intake. Chewing tobacco is almost unknown in the big city, but European Snus, which comes in pouches, is available.

And then there is acupuncture. I’ve been already; my wife has a specialist whom she sees often. The needles went all over my head and feet. I walked out and threw my pack of Marlboros away, but three days later bought another. An additional component to the problem is that bohemians still smoke; at the gallery openings and parties I go to, there are clumps of smokers who hardly fit the lower class profile described above. One woman I hit up for a cigarette recently had only black ones, kept in an antique case. Despite cancer, emphysema and everything else, one can get away with smoking in the hipper quarters of city society to this day because there are still those who feel that smoking is cool.

It’s not. Smoking actually kills more people that just about any other substance. And the benefits of it are very questionable; it doesn’t get you high, and the ‘calming’ effect of nicotine is totally a mental delusion, as the chemical is a stimulant. Most of the sophisticated smokers want to quit, but have trouble.

Enter technology. Lately there has been an explosion of vaporizer use, and there are even vaporiums where enthusiasts and ‘cloud chasers’ can get together and fog up a room. These are second generation electronic cigarettes. The first type came out of China, and in appearance mimicked cigarettes. The second generation is another matter; either the devices are sleek tubes from the future or retro steam-punk ‘modded’ vaporizers that cost a lot, look beautiful, and enable a cloud chaser to blow out an unthinkable amount of vapor.

These devices burn a nicotine juice that can be flavored. I tried a Sprite branded vape, and the taste was unmistakeable. The vaporizers take you halfway there. You are no longer introducing hot smoke into your lungs, but you are still having nicotine. At one vaporium I visited, there was a brass board where frequent clients had their names and the dates of their last ‘analog’ cigarette smoked engraved.

smoking app

But is switching to a vaporizer quitting smoking? Turns out the field of high tech is not finished with us poor smokers. After writing an article on vaporizers, I was sent a free Smokio. It is a sleek device, in appearance not unlike the other models, but in fact more expensive and advanced. The Smokio, a French invention, is blue-tooth enabled, and communicates with an app that allows you to monitor many factors related to smoking. For example, as you use your vaporizer, the app tells you how many cigarettes you would have smoked instead; how much money you saved on them; how many days of your life, approximately, you have not lost. The concept of awareness in such matters is not new; a common dieting tool is simply to write down everything you eat, in order to cut down after examining your list. The Smokio is a smoker’s weight watcher; the founder of the company, Alexandre Prot, says “Smokio is like an electronic lifestyle coach – we know how hard it is for a smoker to quit. It’s both a physical and psychological challenge; the eCig is the key for the physical challenge, the app the key for the psychological effort, providing positive feedback and encouragement needed when trying to quit.”

How useful this would have been in the joint, where those without resources pick up cigarette butts and dry them out and re-roll them, or even make a business out of selling this salvaged tobacco to other desperate smokers with few funds! However, it’s clear that the higher end technological approach is not for the greater part of that last 18 percent of American smokers. It is for the sophisticated user, who has a smart phone and a hundred bucks to spend on trying to quit. Few models are sold in the Appalachians, while New Yorkers order such things with hope and trepidation. When I tried to switch to the vaporizer, which is very convenient for travel and beautiful and easy to charge and fill, I found that my smart phone was not smart enough for the app! However, my wife’s iPhone was, so the blue tooth connection from the little pipe talks to my wife instead of me. She gets to know how many puffs I take and how much nicotine I’ve consumed. And that has turned out to be the best part of it all, because my wife hates smoking with a passion.

Personally, this is the last frontier, as now I cannot even sneak a puff. But in the joint, where the Walkman is the highest form of technology, men are still drying out the ends of rollies. Sophisticated smokers, a small part of the 18 percent, have access to tools like the Smokio, or nicotine gum, Swedish tobacco pouches and transdermal patches. They know they have to stop. If only everyone did.

Daniel Genis writes for Newsweek, The Daily Beast, the New York Daily News and Vice, among others. He is also the author of the novel Narcotica and a forthcoming memoir about his time in prison. He lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife. He last wrote about the truth about drug treatment in prisonMore information is available here.

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Daniel Genis is a Russian-American writer who, at one time, was made famous by a polite string of robberies (he would apologize, take people’s cash from them, then return their wallets) in New York City’s financial district. He was eventually caught and served his time. Daniel is the author of the novel Narcotica. He can be found on Twitter and Linkedin.